Technology Aids Transition to English

edvin and Ms. Adams

Imagine sitting in a classroom all day and not understanding a word that is spoken. For many of the 1,000 students served in the district's English Language Learner (ELL) program, this is how their Ottumwa education began.

A pilot project at James Elementary might change that. Fifth grade teacher, Allison Adams, is piloting technology that allows the teacher and student to hear and understand each other in real time. Using an app on her phone and translator earbuds from Timekettle, both student and teacher can communicate even though neither speaks the other's language. 

Edvin Garcia arrived in the United States from Guatemala in March to live with his brother. Neither speaks English and their Spanish is from a dialect that even Google Translate doesn't recognize. To use this technology, Edvin had to learn to read and understand traditional Spanish. "I'm going to be trilingual," he said.

Edvin receives 30 minutes of ELL instruction each day. His instructor works on building his English vocabulary and reading skills. When he arrived at James as a fifth grader, he only knew 20 letters of the alphabet. Now he knows all his letters, their sounds, and can read books. "The earbuds allow him to still get the grade level content in his language," said Adams.

Adams now has a tool to help keep Edvin engaged in the learning when he is not getting specific ELL instruction. Currently, he knows the class is writing about art and working on fractions in math and is able to participate. At Science Camp last week, Adams was able to help Edvin understand and enjoy the different learning activities. These things would be more challenging without the translator earbuds.

Edvin likes using the earbuds. It allows him to be independent and not reliant on other students who might be able to translate for him. It also provides him more opportunity to learn the content and know what is happening in his classroom and school. While he doesn't use them in PE, at recess, or in the lunchroom, it supports his needs the remainder of the day. 

Adams shared the technology was overwhelming and confusing at first. "He can become over-stimulated," she said. She can gauge when the technology becomes too overwhelming for Edvin and can turn it off if needed. 

"I want to learn. I want to learn English," he said. He hopes to one day become a lawyer and help people. 

On May 13, ELL teachers from across the district will be learning how to use the translation earbuds. Next year, this technology will be integrated into classrooms serving the most needy students with no English skills.